Webster Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Webster Surname Meaning

Weaving as an occupation has generated a number of surnames: Webb, Webster, Webber, and Weaver. There was a definite south/north divide in the incidence of Webbs and Websters, rather than a male/female divide as the original Anglo-Saxon might suggest (webbestre meaning a female weaver):

  • Webbs were mainly to be found in the south,
  • Websters in the north, although stretching as far south as Suffolk, and in Scotland
  • while Webbers and Weavers were much more geographic specific, Webbers in the southwest and Weavers in Cheshire.

Weavers were called websters in Yorkshire. The fact that you were a webster did not necessarily mean that your surname would be Webster. The 1379 Poll Tax returns for the West Ridings of Yorkshire show that only 20 percent of websters by trade were Websters by surname; and many who were called Webster were in fact listed in other occupations.

Webster Surname Resources on The Internet

Webster Surname Ancestry

  • from Northern England and Scotland
  • to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

England. The earliest references were to le Webbesters and le Websters, such as Henry le Webster who was a bowman at the siege of Calais in 1345.

Websters in Yorkshire.  There was and is a cluster of Websters in and around Driffield in the Yorkshire Wolds. A Webster family were landed gentry at Lockington near Driffield from the 1330’s. They later moved to Bolsover in Derbyshire and then to Essex and Sussex. From this family is believed to be descended John Webster, an early immigrant into America.

The line fizzled out in England in the 19th century, but not before Sir Geoffrey Webster, the fifth baronet, was cuckolded in Florence by his young wife Elizabeth during their European grand tour. She, incidentally, is credited with having introduced the dahlia flower to England. Their son General Henry Webster, who distinguished himself at the Battle of Waterloo, later killed himself.

Websters were to be found at Austerfield near Doncaster from the late 1500’s. Robert Webster was a clergyman in Hull in the 1760’s. James Webster, born there in 1767, was the forebear of a family of entrepreneurs in Russia (a descendant narrowly getting out of Odessa after the 1917 revolution).

In Yorkshire, the Webster name has been very much associated with beer and Webster’s Yorkshire bitter. This was first brewed by Samuel Webster at Ovenden near Halifax in 1838. The brewery stayed family-owned until 1971.

Websters Elsewhere.  There were also Webster outposts in Norfolk, Lancashire, and Cumbria.

In Norfolk, the name was fairly common in the villages around Norwich. The earliest reference appears to have been a Wate Webster who delivered the beer at the funeral of Sir John Paston in 1466.

In Lancashire, the name started in places near present-day Liverpool. William le Webster was recorded as a property renter in Much Woolton in 1384. The name features in the parish records of Childwall from the 1630’s and of Wavertree later on.

In Cumbria, the Websters appear as master masons in Kendal and Cartmell from the 1700’s. Francis Webster and his son George took this trade a step further and became one of the premier building designers and architects of the region. Their work can still be seen in the Victorian edifices of Kendal, as well as at Broughton Hall in Yorkshire, the home of the Tempests. The family story was described in Angus Taylor’s 2004 book The Websters of Kendal.

Scotland. The Webster name may not have been indigenous to Scotland but taken north by English settlers. An early reference is Malcolm Webster in Stirling in 1436. The name became common in the northeast of Scotland, in Angus and Aberdeenshire.

Alexander Webster was the master of a musical school in Melrose in the 1670’s. In Aberdeenshire, one farming family at Mains of Inveramsay and another at Old Deer can trace their records back to the 1700’s (Jack Webster, who grew up in the village of Maud, is a local historian of the area). Francis Webster set up his weaving business in Arbroath. He was a town benefactor and built his Memorial Hall there in 1870 (now renovated as the Webster Memorial Theater).

America.  The early Webster arrivals were into Massachusetts.

Massachusetts.  There were a number of Webster arrivals into Massachusetts in the 1630’s:

  • John Webster from Leicestershire in 1634
  • another John Webster in the same year (who founded Ipswich after his home town in Suffolk)
  • and Thomas Webster from Lincolnshire in 1638.

A later arrival was James Webster from Scotland whose descendants became Methodists in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

There were many notables among the early Websters. The first John Webster was an early Governor of the colony of Connecticut. From this family came Noah Webster, the famous dictionary writer who was principally responsible from the Americanness of the American language. From Thomas Webster came Daniel Webster, a formidable orator in the US Senate during the 1830’s.

Grant Webster was a successful Boston merchant in the 1750’s. His daughter Hannah Webster (later Hannah Foster) wrote a spicy potboiler The Coquette which was hugely popular in the early 1800’s. A descendant John W. Webster, a Harvard professor, became famous in 1850 for his conviction and hanging for the murder of George Parkman in a trial that shook Boston society to its core.

Elsewhere.  Some Websters ventured elsewhere. Ephraim Webster was an early settler in Syracuse in upstate New York while it was still Indian territory. These Websters are still present there today.

In 1856 Francis Webster from Norfolk farming stock in England set off via Sydney and San Francisco for Salt Lake valley and the Mormon colony there. He settled in Cedar City and later served as mayor of the town. Generations of Websters, written in 1960, recounts his family history.

Canada. In 1760, Abraham Webster and his wife Margaret left their home in Connecticut with other pioneers for Cornwallis in Nova Scotia. His nephew Isaac had the benefit of a higher education and studied medicine in Edinburgh. There followed six generations of Webster doctors in Kentville Nova Scotia, starting with Isaac himself in 1791.

Another long-standing family has been the Websters of West Flamborough (near Dundas in Ontario). Joseph Webster had been a British army officer in 1795 when his regiment mutinied. No blame was apparently attached to him as he was subsequently granted land in Canada. He arrived there in 1817. Although he himself became homesick and subsequently returned, his family remained and are still to be found there.

Irish.  A number of Websters came to Canada from Ireland. Three brothers – John, Nathaniel, and Robert – settled in the Grenville area of Quebec in 1812. Daniel Webster and his family arrived in Streetville, Ontario from Tipperary in 1837. Much later, in 1907, came Robert Webster and his family from county Wexford. Robert made his home in Toronto, worked on the railroad, and lived onto 1934.

Australia.  Two Websters who survived the harsh convict regime of early Australia were John and Jane Webster. John died in 1842, Jane lived onto 1868. They raised a large family in Golbourn and they have many descendants today in New South Wales.

New Zealand.  The first European settler on the Coromandel peninsula in North Island, New Zealand was an American by the name of Bill Webster. In the 1830’s he deserted from an American whaling ship and set up a trading post on Whanganui island. He befriended the local Maoris and married the chief’s daughter. However, he did not stay and departed back to America in 1845.

Two Webster brothers from Montrose in Scotland did stay. William and John Webster arrived in 1841 and settled in the Hokianga, North Island:

  • William was the first settler in the Wairere Boulder valley, erecting New Zealand’s first water-driven timber mill and making its first pipe organ from native woods. He too married the daughter of a local chieftain.
  • while John had a more wandering early life. He later published his memoirs, Reminiscences of An Old Settler in Australia and New Zealand, in 1908.

Webster Surname Miscellany

A Webster Line from Yorkshire.  The Websters were settled in Yorkshire at a very early period.  According to Burke and Playfair, they held the manor of Lockington in Yorkshire at the time of Richard II.

The apparent founder of the family was John Webster of Bolsover, near Chesterfield in Derbyshire.  In 1434 he returned into Chancery among the gentlemen of that county who made oath, on behalf of themselves and their retainers, for the observance of the king’s laws.

From him is descended John Webster who, upon the dissolution of the monasteries, received from Henry VIII large grants in Cambridgeshire, Essex, and Huntingdonshire.

Lady Webster and Lord Holland.  Born in 1771, Lady Webster had been married at the age of fifteen to the uncongenial Sussex baronet, Sir Geoffrey Webster. Eight years later, they were savoring the lavish life of the aristocracy living abroad.

Enter Lord Holland, aged 20, and his wife.  The young couple was making the European grand tour and, while in Italy, stopped in to see the Websters.  Before you could say cocoxchitl (which the dahlia was called by the Aztecs), Lady Webster and Lord Holland began a torrid affair, ran off together and, in 1796, produced a son.

A year later, Lord Webster divorced his wife and Lord Holland and the former Lady Webster married. Years later, the now Lady Holland sent seeds of dahlia back to Britain and thus has been credited with jump-starting the dahlia’s introduction into English gardens.

Ephraim Webster Among the Indians in Syracuse.  In 1786 a wiry young man five feet four inches tall came to Onondaga, the only white man among the restless Indians of that day.  He established a one-man settlement that eventually led to the founding of the city of Syracuse.  His name was Ephraim Webster.

Webster is said to have married an Indian maiden when he first came to please his Indian allies.  When white settlers arrived, however, he longed for a white woman to be his wife and he later married the beautiful Hannah Danks.

His fame among the Indians became so well established that he was often sent on dangerous and confidential missions by the Government.  Such an assignment became his lot during the fighting between British, Indian, and American troops between 1788 and 1794.  He would loll around the British fort at Oswego in the disguise of an Onandaga Indian.  No amount of liquor ladled out by the suspicious officers could get a word from him except in the native language of the Onandagas.

Ephraim Webster was Syracuse’s trader and merchant who died as he had lived, in the year 1824, among the Indians at Tonawanda.

Noah Webster and the American Language.  As a teacher, Noah Webster had come to dislike American elementary schools.  They could be overcrowded, poorly staffed with untrained teachers, and poorly equipped with no desks and unsatisfactory textbooks that came from England.  Webster thought that Americans should learn from American books.  So he began writing a three volume compendium, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language.

His goal was to provide a uniquely American approach to training children.  His most important improvement, he claimed, was to rescue “our native tongue” from “the clamor of pedantry” that surrounded English grammar and pronunciation.  He complained that the English language had been corrupted by the British aristocracy, which set its own standard for proper spelling and pronunciation. Webster also rejected the notion that the study of Greek and Latin must precede the study of English grammar.

The appropriate standard for the American language, he argued, was “the same republican principles as American civil and ecclesiastical institutions,” which meant that people at large must control the language. Popular sovereignty in government must be accompanied by popular usage in language.  “The truth in general custom is the rule of speaking – and every deviation from this must be wrong.”

For the next one hundred years, Webster’s book taught children how to read, spell, and pronounce words.  It was the most popular American book of its time.  By 1861, it was selling a million copies a year.

Websters from Ireland to Canada.  The first Websters were brought to Ireland from Wigan in Lancashire to construct coal mines in Tipperary. They were very poor and lived in two room mud homes.  They still wore the wooden clogs brought from Wigan.  It is not known whether one or more Websters came from England.  But we do know that Thomas Webster of Kilcooly parish in Tipperary was one of them.

Daniel Webster, born in 1798, was a younger son of Thomas Webster.  He married Susan Pearson in Tipperary in 1829.  He did his apprenticeship as a cooper (barrel maker) and had this trade to fall back on in his later years.  It must have been his wish to be a farmer that – as there were few opportunities in Ireland – he departed for Canada along with several of his neighbors.

His older sister, Mary Louise Webster, had married William Cantelon and their family went to Canada in 1831.

Daniel, Susan, and their three small children left Ireland in 1837.   Four of Daniel’s brothers and at least one sister came to Canada at that time.  Crossing the Atlantic took at least six weeks with a further journey up the St. Lawrence river and Lake Ontario to Hamilton, Ontario.  From Hamilton they went to the flourishing town of Streetsville.  Daniel died in Lucknow, Ontario in 1883.

The next generation of Websters from this family also headed for Canada, this time in 1849 and 1854 after the potato famine.  Henry Webster returned in 1851 with stories of life in the backwoods.  He was conscripted for the Crimean War and thus never returned to Canada.

Escape From Russia.  John Webster went over to Russia very young  to join the business of his uncle, a co-founder of Kovalenko & Webster who were tug and barge owners and coal merchants operating from the Black Sea ports of Kherson and Odessa.  As the latter’s sons all died in fever, John in due course became a manager.

He had frequently proposed to his cousin Marie, as had a Russian that her father wanted her to marry. However, she did not want to marry Kovalenko and she finally accepted John’s proposal.   They were married in Odessa in 1914.  Kovalenko was apparently distraught.  During the Revolution, as a capitalist, he had to sweep the streets and was said to have died with her name on his lips.

In 1917, Imperial Army officers, trying to escape from Odessa, were caught by the revolutionaries.  They were tied together in groups, heavy stones were fastened to their feet, and they were then taken to sea and thrown overboard.  Later their dead bodies could be seen floating upright, moving with the current.  For better class Russians at the time, it was essential to wear old clothes and no fur coat.  A white collar or hands would lead to instant arrest.

By 1918 the Germans were advancing.  So it was essential for John and Marie to leave Odessa via Siberia, as this was the only route open to England.  It will be seen from the log that it took two months to travel from Odessa to London.  They had to leave most of their belongings and assets behind, including presumably the Fairfax sword and the India and Gold Rush letters from his father. 

Samuel Webster’s Brewery.  Samuel Webster opened his brewery in Ovenden Wood in 1838.  The plant was located close to a natural spring which initially provided the water needs of the brewery.  The brewery, in common with many others, owned significant numbers of tied public houses spread throughout West Yorkshire.

One of their advertising slogans was “drives out the Northern thirst.”  Their brands, Green Label and Yorkshire Bitter, were famous all over the country.  These brands were distributed in bottles and cans, although the traditional brewing at Webster had been cask ales.  Two of the company’s dray horses were used for publicity until well into the 1990’s and two talking Webster dray horses – Uncle and Nephew – appeared in a series of TV ads for the brewery.

In 1971 the company was taken over by Watney Mann.

Webster Names

  • John Webster was an English Jacobean playwright, a late contemporary of Shakespeare.
  • Alexander Webster carried out the first census of Scotland in 1755.
  • Noah Webster published his American Spelling Book in 1786 and his first Dictionary of the English Language in 1806 (updated in 1828).
  • Daniel Webster from New Hampshire was a leading American senator in the years prior to the Civil War.
  • Ben Webster was one of the great tenor saxophone players of the swing era.

Webster Numbers Today

  • 37,000 in the UK (most numerous in Kent)
  • 25,000 in America (most numerous in New York).
  • 26,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Webster and Like Surnames   

The various medieval trades and occupations were a source of surnames as John the baker would over time would become known as John Baker.  Some skilled craftsmen – such as chandlers, fletchers and turners – were able to form guilds, protective organizations, and style themselves Worshipful Companies.  These are some of the occupational surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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